Though Notre Dame’s 48-37 victory over Wake Forest was hardly ever in doubt Saturday, the Irish defense also never played up to its 2017 standard. The Demon Deacons final three scores can perhaps be chalked up to garbage time malaise, but the yardage totals before that stretch speak to an efficient offense moving the ball nearly at will.
Through two minutes less than three quarters, Wake Forest gained 352 total yards (224 passing, 128 rushing). The only thing preventing the Demon Deacons from putting genuine pressure on Notre Dame was their difficulty on third downs, converting only three of 10 to that point. For context, that is more total yards than five previous Irish opponents, including each of the last three, managed in entire games.
Before criticizing the Irish defense, some kudos should be offered to Wake Forest and head coach Dave Clawson’s staff.
“That’s the first thing I’ve told everybody tonight, hats off to Wake Forest,” Notre Dame senior linebacker and captain Drue Tranquill said following the final victory of a successful three-game stretch at home. “Offensively they came in and executed really well. Their quarterback was crisp in his reads, getting the ball to his receivers, and they got effective in the run game.”
Naturally, Tranquill and the Irish expected to keep the Deacons in check no matter how well senior quarterback John Wolford played (28-of-45 for 331 yards and two touchdowns plus 62 rushing yards and a score on 11 carries). Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said Sunday some of the issues may have come from a schematic angle.
“From a coaching standpoint, if we had to do some things differently, we definitely would have done them differently,” Kelly said. “Maybe [we] got too cute in terms of what we were trying to accomplish, trying to cover up some things that we thought they knew about us.”
Without saying as much, Kelly seemed to be referencing the unique dynamic of Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko having spent the last three seasons in the same position at Wake Forest. If his tendencies, preferences and plans are familiar to anybody, it should be Clawson.
“We didn’t do what we normally do,” Kelly said. “We’ll take some of the blame for that in terms of coaching.”
Then, there is the indifference created by a large lead. Kelly specifically referenced Notre Dame’s 41-16 advantage it gained with 2:04 remaining in the third quarter. The Deacons promptly went 75 yards in six plays and 1:34 to cut seven points off that margin. If including that with the fourth quarter totals, Wake Forest gained 235 yards in Saturday’s final 17:04. Including one on that touchdown drive, the Deacons converted three of their final four third downs.
“We didn’t handle ourselves in a manner to close out the game the way we have all year,” Kelly said. “So a little bit of coaching there, a little bit of having a killer instinct on defense, and Wake Forest executing extremely well.”
The Elko aspect is a confluence of his success, Notre Dame’s lax defense last year and a one-in-three chance of scheduling. That will not come about again.
The decreased defensive intensity, however, will undoubtedly be a coaching point for Kelly this week before heading south to face a Miami (FL) offense averaging 461.0 yards per game.
Irish junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush officially has a bruised left hand. Kelly indicated the treatment was as simple as an ice pack and expects the dual-threat to be good to go against the Hurricanes.
Kelly reiterated junior running back Josh Adams is not in the concussion protocol after missing all but the first quarter Saturday.
“He felt great today,” Kelly said. “He’ll continue to practice and be ready for Miami.”
Junior running back Dexter Williams may not have the same availability. A sprained ankle has robbed Williams of his explosiveness much of the season. When he broke loose with open field in front of him but was quickly tracked down by the Wake Forest defense, that ankle presumably prevented Williams from speeding away for more than 32 yards.
Kelly said the ankle is no longer the pressing concern with Williams, but rather a quad contusion from earlier in the season has acted up.
“It’s an old injury that has been one that has popped up here and there,” Kelly said. “As you saw in his long run, it affected him. He’s a day-to-day kind of guy.”
From there, Notre Dame should be relatively healthy. Sophomore defensive end Khalid Kareem suffered a hyperextension of his knee, but Kelly said he will not be limited this week. Junior tight end Alizé Mack will return from a concussion Monday. Senior cornerback Nick Watkins will be as available as tendonitis allows him to be. When he can’t go, in steps sophomore Troy Pride.